Emily scrolled through her Instagram feed entranced. Friends. Acquaintances. People she’d never met. All of them posting their latest grasp for approval, represented by that all-so-important number . . . likes.
A guy named Ethan just posted a picture of himself posing with three friends. 746 likes.
Taylor next to her pool. 1,238 likes.
Jackson’s dog sniffing a bug. 957 likes.
Then there was Emily’s last post. Her POV of her new shoes. A mere 158 likes.
Emily’s stomach clenched reflexively. Her chest tightened and her breathing increased almost unnoticeably. She just felt . . . not good enough.
She decided to open TikTok instead. The first video made her smile. A lovable Labrador cuddling with a cat. 644.6K likes.
Someone pranking her dad, getting him to eat dog biscuits. 2.3M likes.
Two girls in crop tops dancing to Cardi B. 3.7M likes.
A guy lying on his tile floor playing guitar. 523.9K likes
Each of these online celebrities had so many followers liking their every post.
And that’s when that inescapable feeling crept its way into Emily’s thoughts once again. Why don’t I have that many likes? Why don’t I have that many followers?
Self-esteem has always been a struggle, especially for adolescents. But ever since we’ve all been carrying social media in our back pockets, the struggle has grown to epic proportions.
Recent studies reveal that 8 out of 10 young people want to be an online influencer, and this desire for Insta-celebridom has actually changed how young people are navigating social media. Today, those tiny digital numbers of likes and followers on everyone’s device have huge significance . . . and everyone wants more!
What does that mean?
Two sobering ramifications:
- Young people are way less cautious about whom they connect with online. Because ya gotta have more followers! Ted Bundy just sent you a friend request. Absolutely. Friend accepted. One more follower. Sadly, many teens are vulnerable to online predators because they have never been educated on how to recognize predatory behaviors.
In every city I speak, I hear stories of kids sneaking out at night to meet someone they connected with online. Most of these stories have scary endings (which is why I frequently tell these stories to kids in school assemblies and in my Teen’s Guide books).
But vulnerability to predators isn’t the only danger our kids are experiencing.
2. The pressure to measure up is taking a toll on young people’s mental health. Today’s young people are experiencing an unprecedented increase of anxiety, depression and suicide—pre-COVID, mind you. And the spike began when social media found its way into everyone’s back pocket.
One in five adolescent girls experienced a major depressive episode at some point during 2018. That’s an 84% increase across a decade. And a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that suicide rates among Americans ages 10 to 24 increased by 56% between 2007 and 2017. 2007 is the year the iPhone came out. The biggest increases occurred among the very young; suicide rates nearly tripled during that time period in kids ages 10 to 14.
Let’s face it. Our devices have become little barometers of self-esteem. The more time we spend on social media, the worse we feel.
In 2020 researchers compared their data and came to a consensus: the hours young people spend on social media strongly affect their mental health, especially girls. They even got specific. Mental health and happiness are the strongest when teenagers spend just 1 to 2 hours a day on social media. The more time spent beyond two hours, the more mental well-being decreases—and rapidly.
So how should we respond?
It’s time to educate parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles on how to parent Generation-Screen. Caring adults need to engage kids in conversations about these issues, helping them learn to become screen-wise.
Are you engaging kids in these conversations?
Get a peek at what these conversations look like in Jonathan’s brand-new book, Parenting Generation Screen.
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty-five books including the brand-new Parenting Generation Screen and The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices. Jonathan speaks globally to parents and leaders and provides free help for families on becomingscreenwise.com.